You Can’t Get There from Here: The Inchon Story II

Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez of the Marine Corps is shown scaling a seawall after landing on Red Beach (September 15). Minutes after this photo was taken, Lopez was killed after covering a live grenade with his body. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Then, at the height of the embarkation, General MacArthur asked for the immediate dispatch of a planning group from the 1st Division headquarters. The already attenuated staff was split in half, with one group of twelve officers and six enlisted men flying out to Japan, arriving on 18 August. When they arrived they learned, for the first time, that a landing at Inchon (Operation Chromite) was definitely on, that D-day was 15 September, less than a month away, and that the date could not be slipped because the 15th was the only day for a month when the tide at Inchon would be high enough to permit the beaching of landing ships.

The remainder of the staff—eleven officers and four enlisted men—arrived two days later, and it was this group of only twenty-three officers and ten enlisted men that faced a planning task for which a team three times the size would not have been excessive. Subtracting time required for movement to the objective and time required for distribution of the plans, once made, General Smith and his little group had just ten days to do a thirty- or forty-day planning job.

Their first problem was an inexplicable state of mind on the part of MacArthur and his staff. Never mind that the hydrography and the topography united to make Inchon an immensely complex problem, never mind that the thirty-foot tides dictated that the assault take place in late afternoon, the party line was that the Inchon landing was a piece of cake. And no contrary thoughts were tolerated. General Smith provides some of the flavor of what they were up against:

General Almond dismissed the whole matter by stating that there was no organized enemy anyway, that our difficulties were purely mechanical.

General Shepherd adds:

MacArthur stated that he did not believe Inchon was defended, that the people would rise up and welcome the invasion.

The people who were faced with having to do the job—Admiral Doyle and General Smith—did not share these sanguine sentiments. Put plainly, they did not want to go to Inchon. While they saw the virtue of an enveloping attack that severed the lifeline of the North Korean forces besieging the Pusan Perimeter, they believed it could be done more surely and effectively by landing at some point less forbidding than Inchon.

In early August, as General Shepherd became acquainted with the unusual problems involved with the Inchon area, he asked me to study the region and to try and find another landing area nearby that offered less formidable obstacles. I prepared a terrain study and an estimate of the situation which concluded that a landing at Anjung (also called Posung Myon), about thirty miles south of Inchon, was to be preferred. The current intelligence disclosed no enemy there. We would avoid landing in the heart of a large city, and we would not have to land at a specific time (at Inchon in late afternoon) during the only day on which a tide high enough for beaching the LSTs (landing ships) occurred in more than a month.

The alternate landing site would avoid the forbidding hydrography of Inchon harbor, yet it would not sacrifice the benefits of an envelopment and would still be near enough to Inchon and Seoul to permit their early capture. We took the study and accompanying maps with us on a trip to the Far East on 21 August. Upon arriving there, General Shepherd found that he had a determined ally, not only in General Smith but in Rear Admiral Doyle.

Doyle was a gaunt, Lincolnesque figure with a pink complexion, a Boston Irish accent, a hot temper, and a cool sense of humor that surfaced at times of great tension. He had, and deserved, the reputation for being the Navy’s preeminent amphibious admiral. As the attack force commander for the Inchon landing, he had the task of taking the landing force to the objective, putting it ashore, and then providing the successive increments of logistic support that would keep it there. He was dissatisfied with the Inchon idea for many of the same reasons as the Marines—perilous navigation, the tide problem that required an evening landing, unfavorable hydrography, and the difficulty of landing in a large city which, despite careful precautions, might well be burning. As the one responsible for surmounting the naval aspects of these problems, Doyle was strongly opposed to the Inchon site and he stood up and said so. At a meeting of Navy and Marine commanders at Yokosuka on 21 August he laid the problem out in great detail in a manner so clear and persuasive that everyone present was convinced that a landing somewhere to the south of Inchon—at Anjung (Posung Myon), for instance—was to be preferred. Among those present was Admiral Forrest Sherman, the chief of naval operations, who had come to the Far East with Army Chief of Staff Collins to examine the concept on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were to see MacArthur in about two hours, and we were happy to hear that at the meeting he would support Doyle in his opposition to Inchon and his proposal to land in a more practical area farther south.

They went to the meeting. Doyle made his presentation—“Magnificently put on,” according to Sherman—but it served only as a trigger for a forty-five minute Churchillian oration by MacArthur on the importance of the capture of Seoul and the consequent rewards assured by success at Inchon, ending with the words—quoted to me the next day by Doyle: “We will land at Inchon and I shall crush them.”

According to Doyle, Sherman gave him no support in his counterproposal. Sherman did declare later, however, that MacArthur was fearful that coordinated opposition by Collins and Sherman to the Inchon attack might prevent the approval by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of an early amphibious envelopment, and so,

When it was proposed that the landing take place some thirty miles to the southward MacArthur jumped at the idea, stating if such an area could be found it would be acceptable to him.

The next day, enroute from Japan to Korea, General Shepherd and I outlined to Sherman in greater detail, with the help of a map, the multiple advantages of the Anjung landing. Sherman listened. Both General Shepherd and I were sure we had convinced him. But in the end it all amounted to nothing. Two days later, in Tokyo, (24 August) General Shepherd laid out the Anjung concept for Lieutenant General Edward M. Almond, MacArthur’s chief of staff, who was also to command the landing. After the meeting General Shepherd told me that Almond dismissed the idea summarily, saying that Inchon had been decided upon and that was where it would be, that Seoul was the real objective. So, with only a little more than two weeks remaining before sailing, the people who knew better were obliged to abandon their convictions and settle in on making and issuing plans for a landing at Inchon.

Generals Smith and Harris, the Marine ground and air commanders, faced a procession of brutal problems, paced to the inexorable march of the clock. To complicate matters, the two commanders were not working out of the same location. Smith was in Kobe and Harris was at an air base at Itami, some forty miles away. They needed to know the effects of tides and currents, the consistency of the Inchon mud flats, height and character of the Inchon seawall, the nature and location of enemy defenses—data that took time to obtain. The tasks of composing, reproducing, and distributing the tactical plans were straightforward functions and well understood by the planning staffs, but it all took time, and time was a fast disappearing commodity.

To cope with the possibility of boats and amphibians grounding in the mud flats, the planners hit on the idea of putting two planks in each to support men walking across the mud. To surmount the stone seawalls fronting Inchon harbor, they decided to build and install a scaling ladder in each boat and LVT. Again, a simple improvisation, but it consumed precious time.

The few days and hours still remaining were further invaded by problems with the Army and Navy. Both General Almond’s X Corps staff and Admiral Struble, the overall Joint Task Force Commander, were opposed to a pre-D-day naval bombardment, hoping, thereby, to maintain the element of surprise. Admiral Doyle and General Smith were convinced that there were enough enemy targets in the area to warrant an aggressive naval gunfire program. It took three time-consuming meetings, on 1, 3, and 8 September, to get the matter settled on terms agreeable to Doyle and Smith.

This problem, important as it was, nevertheless was eclipsed by difficulties with MacArthur’s staff and most particularly Lieutenant General Almond, who had by now assumed overall command of the landing force. In a military anomaly, he still retained his position as chief of staff of GHQ and was thus able to issue orders to himself. Lieutenant General Shepherd was the logical landing force commander. The bulk of the forces, air and ground, came from his command, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and he had the requisite depth of amphibious experience. MacArthur recognized this and told General Shepherd on 24 August that had he not already promised the command to Almond he would have given it to Shepherd.

As detailed planning proceeded, it became increasingly clear that the forces and equipment the Marines were bringing represented the bulk of the Inchon investment. At one of Almond’s planning meetings where the crossing of the Han River was discussed, for example, it turned out that the quantity of bridging equipment shown by the briefing officer as available was exactly the amount being brought with the 1st Marine Division. Without it there would be no bridging in X Corps at all. The Marine force included two photographic aircraft, which had gone to the Far East to provide aerial photographic coverage for the 1st Marine Brigade. X Corps appropriated the little detachment as its sole photographic resource.

The 1st Marine Division is what MacArthur asked for as the ground force to do the Inchon job. It was what the JCS authorized and what the Marine Corps was in the process of providing. Of the division’s three infantry regiments, one, the 5th Marines, was busy fighting as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Pusan Perimeter. Another, the 1st Marines, was enroute from the United States to Kobe and due to arrive between 28 August and 3 September. The remaining one, the 7th Marines, was due to arrive in the Far East about 15 September. Thus, General Smith was obliged to plan his 15 September landing around only two regiments, one of which was already fighting near Pusan.

Smith began asking Almond to release the 1st Brigade from the Pusan Perimeter on 23 August. Almond’s response, in his capacity as GHQ chief of staff, was that the release of the brigade “… would be bad for the morale of the Eighth Army and, in any case, would be dependent on the tactical situation. . . .” Smith repeated his request to Almond on 30 August and was put off again with the excuse that MacArthur’s headquarters was unwilling to direct the release of the brigade because of the tenuous situation in the Pusan area. The brigade commander himself, Smith was told, should negotiate his release directly with the Eighth Army commander. Smith refused to accept this and on 1 September sent an official dispatch requesting release of the brigade to permit it to plan, load, and embark for the operation. A dispatch releasing the brigade was finally issued on 4 September.

More precious time had been lost in haggling. The division sent a liaison officer to the brigade on 2 September to acquaint the units with the tactical plan and to give them data from which they could develop their own detailed plans. The liaison officer arrived to find that the brigade had been committed to action again to meet a North Korean threat. Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Raymond L. Murray, commanding the 5th Marine Regiment said,

I received first news of the operation via a liaison officer while we were heavily engaged in the Second Battle of the Naktong. I was given an aerial photo of Inchon and told we would land on Red Beach over the seawall.

Twenty-four hours later, even as the brigade was moving heavy equipment to Pusan in preparation for embarkation, and as ships to transport the unit to Inchon had been dispatched from Japan, the order for its release was revoked. General Smith was notified that the 5th Marines would be replaced in the assault landing task organization by the 32d Infantry of the 7th Infantry Division—a unit that had no amphibious training whatever and included 40 percent Korean conscripts. Usually a taciturn man, General Smith lost his composure. With the help of Admirals Doyle and Joy, he arranged a showdown meeting with Almond. It took place the next morning (3 September). Smith was clear in his position. He would not employ the mixed U.S./Korean unit in an amphibious assault role. He would land on one rather than two beaches and he advised Almond that removal of the 5th Marines would go beyond the point of acceptable risk. Almond responded that, “GHQ would take the risk and that General MacArthur would be present for the landing and would take the responsibility for calling it off if necessary.” As if calling off an amphibious operation, once begun, is analogous to turning off a light.

In an ensuing heated discussion, they finally agreed that the 7th Infantry Division unit would be embarked to serve as a floating reserve for General Walker in the Pusan Perimeter, and that the 5th Marines would be released for the Inchon operation—but not until midnight, 5 September!

Smith had prevailed but another day had been expended in debate that need not have taken place, and there were not many days left. Where the 1st Marine Brigade was concerned, there would be only six days from the hour of their withdrawal from heavy combat until they had to be embarked and on their way to the Inchon battle. During that time they would march eight miles, truck fifty miles to the port of Pusan, prepare and distribute plans for the landing, receive and absorb replacements for combat losses (some 30 percent of the infantry strength), replenish supplies, build scaling ladders, receive and integrate the third rifle company for each infantry battalion (just arrived from the United States to bring the unit to full war strength), embark and sail around the Korean peninsula to join the Inchon attack force. In addition to all this, the brigade was made responsible for getting the Korean Marine Corps Regiment to Inchon, only to find, on 6 September, that one of its battalions had no weapons! The Marines procured the necessary arms from Army stock and, as General Murray recalls, “We even found time to conduct some basic weapons training for the Korean Marines.” They did it all and were aboard and under way on 12 September. The amphibious ships were crowded and hot but they provided a bath, hot food, and a bunk—pure luxury to the Marines who were exhausted by the Pusan Perimeter combat.

There were other assaults on the Marines’ time, such as notification, in the midst of planning, that General Almond wanted to have a war game of the Inchon-Seoul operation. A liaison officer delivered the directive for the war game to the overworked 1st Division operations officer, Colonel A. L. Bowser. Bowser says,

I took the directive, folded it several times, tucked it into the liaison officer’s pocket and told him to take it back to GHQ.

Another hair shirt was tried on for size on 7 September, when General Almond’s X Corps headquarters notified General Smith that a detachment of 100 Marines was desired to operate as raiders along with a detachment of Army Rangers and British Commandos. The concept was that they would paddle ashore from a ship at night in rubber boats, move ten miles over land on foot, and capture Kimpo Airfield, northeast of Inchon. How the two- or three-knot rubber boats were to operate against tidal currents that reached six knots and how the small, lightly armed infantry group was to cope with even moderate resistance ashore was never explained. In any case, after several frustrating exchanges, Smith simply sent a message saying the Marine raiders were not available. He heard nothing more about it.

It seemed that everyone had a part in invading the precious hours standing between the Marines and D-day. On 6 September the secretary of the navy issued an order that all Marines who had not reached their eighteenth birthday must be withdrawn from the troop list. All records in both the division and wing had to be researched. It turned out that some six hundred men fell under the age restriction. They were everywhere—enroute, aboard ship, ashore in four different places—and they had to be assembled and provision made for their care in Japan, once the division and wing units were gone.

And fate added to the Marines’ torment, too. On 3 September, at the height of the 1st Marine Division’s reloading process, Typhoon Jane, 75 knots, struck Kobe. Several ships broke their moorings, breakers rolled across the piers, cargo in the process of being resorted was damaged by seawater and torrential rain, vehicles were flooded, and all loading operations were suspended for more than twenty-four hours.

One of the last ships to arrive from the United States, the SS Noonday, carrying general cargo and ammunition, caught fire as she was approaching Kobe. By the time the fire tugs had extinguished the blaze and the soaked cargo had been unloaded, refurbished, and reloaded, more valuable time had disappeared.

On 10 September warning was received that Typhoon Kezia, 85 knots, was approaching Kobe. Admiral Doyle directed that all of the large transports and cargo ships, thirteen of them, scheduled to sail on 12 September, get under way on the 11th. After they had been at sea for twenty-four hours, suffering greatly because of the high winds and mountainous seas, the thirteen ships reversed course, assuming they could not get around or through the typhoon. When Doyle, whose flagship had departed shortly after the transports, learned of this he issued a simple order: “Reverse course and follow me.” Had the resolute admiral not taken that timely and courageous action, the critical 15 September D-day would not have been met.

And finally, on the 13th, Admiral Doyle was notified that a landing ship carrying the headquarters of the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines had broken down. It had only one engine operating and could make only six knots, which would not get the ship to Inchon on time. A tug was provided and with its help the ship could manage eight knots, which was just enough to get her to Inchon for the landing.

That was the final crisis. From that point on, everything that could be done had been done. The force was on its way. Now MacArthur’s “10,000 to one gamble” was in the hands of fate.

In the final hours, several incidents occurred that provide an interesting look backstage before the lifting of the curtain on the battle. General Shepherd and I accompanied General MacArthur in his aircraft from Tokyo to Itazuke on 13 September and from there some eighty miles to Sasebo to join up with the Mt. McKinley. Waiting for the ship to arrive, the party passed about three hours in a Navy Petty Officers’ Club, eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, and talking. During the entire period, in which MacArthur took the conversational lead himself, the discussion never once touched on Inchon, the challenge involved, or the series of unusual actions that had brought the task force together. The conversation, which included primarily MacArthur, Major General Courtney Whitney, and MacArthur’s more intimate associates, was confined to one subject—their pre-World War II days in the Philippines. In the space of three hours, Inchon was never mentioned. It seemed to me that they still did not sense either the fragility or the complexity of the operation facing us.

The next day, enroute to the objective, we received some surprising news. President Truman, under heavy fire for the lack of preparedness of American forces in Japan at the war’s beginning and tired of Louis Johnson’s squabbling with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, marched his defense secretary down the plank. Johnson was fired, and there was genuine rejoicing about Mt. McKinley, from MacArthur down. There seemed in this to be some just retribution. Although he was not the only reason for all our high-pressure scrambling of the past few weeks, Johnson was certainly the cutting edge of the imprudent economy movement that had made the preparation for Inchon such a nightmare.

Next, there was an incident on the flag bridge of the ship on the afternoon of D – 1. Rear Admiral Doyle, the steadfast Amphibious Task Force commander, Major General E. K. Wright, MacArthur’s operations officer, and I were talking of the parade of problems that had characterized the preceding few weeks. Wright said, “I sometimes felt we’d never make it.”

Doyle, who had endured more than his share of problems, and who could be testy when he felt like it, said,

Get this straight. We wouldn’t have made it; we wouldn’t be here today, if the operation hadn’t been in the hands of Navy and Marine professionals who knew exactly what they were doing.

Wright didn’t say anything, and I didn’t have to.

A final prebattle incident occurred early on the morning of D-day. Mt. McKinley had anchored near the transport area where an LSD of the attack force was to launch assault forces of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines in amphibian tractors (LVTs) for their attack on the offshore island of Wolmi-do. Along with others, I was on the boat deck as the dawn broke, watching the air and naval gunfire preparation by planes of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and ships of the task force. As the first LVTs began to emerge from the mother ship, I commented to Lieutenant General Almond, who was standing nearby, “That LVT is certainly a versatile machine.”

Apparently not aware that I was referring to the ship-to-shore conveyance we were watching, he responded, “Yes. Tell me, can it float?” I was nonplussed. Here was the leader, bearing the immediate responsibility for the entire landing force in a critical amphibious operation, and he wanted to know if an LVT would float! The Marines had been concerned about Almond during the planning phase when he seemed to have his mind only on the big picture—the capture of Seoul or “making an anvil for the Eighth Army’s hammer.” Yet the landing force—his landing force—was confronted with immense and immediate problems. A race with darkness, getting over mud flats, across sea walls, through a big Oriental city, seizing an airfield, initiating a major logistic system, establishing a beachhead—these were the essential precursors of any hammer and anvil, and they were Almond’s direct responsibility. It seemed, from the first, that he did not understand these things. That apprehension was now heightened in my mind as we stood there watching LVTs bearing the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines plough through the waves toward Wolmi-do.

The preliminaries to Inchon were unusual in many ways, and there will be many judgments as to the identity of the catalyst or catalysts that brought it all together. A fair case can be made that Inchon would never have happened were it not for three things.

First, it would never have happened had General MacArthur, with a keen strategic sense, not expressed his desire on 10 July for the 1st Marine Division to make an amphibious envelopment and had not Lieutenant General Shepherd volunteered, then and there, to help him procure the division and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

Second, it would never have happened had Commandant Cates not thrown his total support behind the project and urged mobilization of the Marine Corps Reserve, and had President Truman, in the face of strong political opposition, not approved the Reserve mobilization.

Finally, it would never have happened were it not for the ingenious and altogether professional actions of the Marines and Navy people involved. The piecing together of the thirty thousand man air-ground force in the space of three weeks, the succession of improvisations in embarkation and in planning, the steadfast poise with which General Smith, Admiral Doyle, and their staffs fought off the meddling of General Almond as they pursued their affairs, the ingenious adaptations to the unusual nature of the mandated landing area—these were the indispensable lubricants that oiled the gears of strategy, these were the things that converted Inchon from a dream to a reality.

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